Poisoning the well – F1’s underlying problem

Romain Grosjean
c/o James Moy Photography

If one thing has struck me about this season, it is that there is a major underlying issue that has the potential to deeply affect the sport that we love. I have dedicated much time this year to the discussion of penalties and driving ethics, but also to the prospects of young talent as it rises through the junior championships.

I have now spent almost one third of my life, and pretty much the entirety of my adult life, engaged within the highest levels of international motorsport, but my heart for racing remains in the ladder to reach Formula 1, and in the talented youngsters who should create the future of the top level.

The key word in that last sentence, however, is “should.” Because the current structure of single seater motorsport is filling the path of progression for a young driver with ever greater hurdles and roadblocks. We have reached a very dangerous time, at which the talent pool looks likely to stagnate and for motor racing fans to be denied witnessing the talents of an entire generation at the very highest level.

Breaking into F1 has never been easy. It should never be easy. As the undeniable top rank of international motorsport, only the very best should progress. Of course, we know this isn’t always the case. Spaces are limited and top teams are reluctant to take a chance on a rookie, even those with a cheque book the size of a small nation’s GDP. Money ultimately talks, but if there aren’t the spaces, there aren’t the spaces.

In the aftermath of Spa and Romain Grosjean’s race ban, many are questioning who has the right to be in Formula 1 and whether the junior categories are preparing drivers for the rigours of F1. The question of driving standards, and of policing those standards, is something I have written about already this week and this article is not designed to go back over that ground. I have made my opinions on that perfectly clear.

But the question of young drivers in Formula 1, and whether they are ready for the challenge, is one which really does need to be addressed.

Formula 1, I feel, has made a rod for its own back. It is a rod which has been created largely from empty cans of Red Bull, and it has affected everything and everyone in the sport.

Sebastian Vettel and Helmut Marko
c/o James Moy Photography

Red Bull’s influence in motorsport cannot be overstated. For over a decade now it has ploughed millions, I’d hazard potentially billions into racing. It has sponsored young drivers, and given breaks to hundreds of talented kids. So why the beef?

My gripe lies with the simple fact that of the entire Red Bull programme, one driver has succeeded to the levels which every young driver programme wishes. But what Red Bull and Dr Helmut Marko have seemingly failed to grasp is that Sebastian Vettel was not and should never have been considered to be the norm. He is not a template, nor a model of every young driver’s career. He is the exception to the rule. He is special, a one off. The likes of a Vettel come around once in a generation. An expectation that every driver will have the same rate of progression as the two-time champion is unrealistic and grossly unfair.

But that is what Red Bull drivers are faced with. And that is why there is an ever growing scrap heap of immense talent, all branded with that infamous logo on their hinds. Branded with broken dreams, all united with disillusionment and disdain for the promises which were shattered in front of them in a shower of remorseless savagery and cold, bitter resentment.

Sebastian Vettel was the youngest driver to score a point and take a pole, youngest to win a race, youngest to win a world title in Formula 1. And ever since then the sport, led by Red Bull, has searched for ever younger talent, determining that they have the talent to win an F1 world championship before they’ve barely had a chance to get to grips with slicks and wings.

Jaime Alguersuari is a prime example. A driver of huge talent and immense promise, and yet booted out of the programme by the time he was old enough to order a beer in America. The vast majority of the F1 paddock, and even some within the Red Bull family, still find that one baffling.

Lewis Hamilton and Martin Whitmarsh
Monaco 2006
c/o GP2 Series Media Service

Of course it isn’t just Red Bull. McLaren backed Lewis Hamilton to the hilt and brought him to F1 at a very young age. He, too, exceeded expectations, taking the fight to a two time world champion and missing out on the championship by a single point in his rookie season. But McLaren realise he’s the exception. They know he is a one off. The youngsters on the McLaren roster are kept out of the limelight and allowed to evolve in their own time. McLaren’s been around long enough to understand that a great driver needs nurturing and supporting if he is to achieve his full potential.

After Spa everyone is pointing the finger at the likes of Grosjean, Maldonado, and saying that these kids are pushing too hard, making too many mistakes… but what do we honestly expect?

What do we expect when we rush drivers, barely out of their teens, into the highest level of international motorsport and tell them they’ve got a season to prove they’re worthy of their place or they’re out? What did we think was going to happen? Seriously? Did we expect them to take it easy? To not take every risk?

In researching a recent article for F1 Racing magazine on why there are no Italian drivers in F1, Stefano Domenicali was very up front about the situation. But in looking at young drivers his assessment was fascinating. Sergio Perez, he admitted, was probably too young to join Ferrari. I suggested a driver such as Luca Filippi, who has outscored Romain Grosjean in the second half of GP2 in 2011. Stefano didn’t have to think long before declaring Luca was probably a bit too old and had spent too long in GP2.

This is something you hear all the time. Driver X or driver Y, having spent four or five years in GP2 clearly can’t be all that good or they would have won it in their first season. They’re too old now anyway. At that ripe old, pension drawing age of 26.

So you take it down to base level and think about it… it’s perfectly possible for a driver to step straight into GP3 out of karts, and if he’s mega, mega special he could finish in the top 3. That’s 16 races. Then he steps into GP2 and takes the title in his first year. 24 races. The world raves about him and he gets an F1 shot. After 40 single seater races. Yes, we have seen the likes of Button and Raikkonen do the same, but they are world champions, the special ones. It doesn’t happen for everyone. These drivers were allowed time to make their mistakes. They had repeated chances. Think about how long it took Jenson Button to win his first race, and then how long it took him to mature into a championship winning driver. Then look at today and how few drivers get a shot at even a second season, let alone a third, fourth, fifth without winning a race.

The argument from Red Bull and their like comes that if a driver was that good then his rate of progression would have been on a par with a Vettel. If any driver doesn’t shape up to be as good at the same age then it is a simple decision to drop them. But this, for me, is desperately short sighted. Everyone matures at different speeds. Let’s take Button again as that example. Which driver would you rather have? Jenson aged 19, or Jenson aged 29? I’d go for the 29 year old vintage every time.

Jenson Button… the complete article
c/o James Moy Photography

So ask yourself, who would you as a team boss rather employ? The 19 year old kid with 40 races under his belt, or the kid with a bit of the world behind him and 100 races in a single seater? All of that accrued knowledge, experience, mistakes and corrections. As I’ve said already this season, Formula 1 seems to be the only job on earth where inexperience counts for more than experience. Where else would you be interviewed for a position, and the guy with a decade of experience is passed over for the kid straight out of University?

The true greats will arrive quickly and will make a good showing, but they will make mistakes. Even the mighty Vettel took out his now team-mate early on in his career and was described as a “kid” who had a tendency to “fuck it up.” But we can’t rush every driver and expect them to be that one diamond in the rough. It is unrealistic.

We are so quick to pass judgement on these youngsters when they do reach F1, that we perhaps lose sight of the fact that they are not as experienced. But we shouldn’t have to make that distinction. They should be ready. They should be experienced. The fact that they are not is because the modern trend is to rush them through the junior ranks.

But we must also realise that the junior championships are ripe for an overhaul. And the starting point must be GP2. To my mind, it has to become a professional championship. Just like 250cc / Moto2 is for motoGP. Max Biaggi spent 8 years in 250s, but did that make him too old? Did that harm his career? Absolutely not. It helped shape him into the rider he is. Why shouldn’t GP2 be full of the drivers who can’t quite get to F1 because there aren’t the spaces yet? Why shouldn’t a Sam Bird, a Luca Filippi, a Jules Bianchi, race there year after year? And if a kid comes along and wipes the floor with them, you know he is a genuine talent. If not, you have a professional championship, full of brilliant racing drivers, all of whom can earn a crust and not have to bring the insane levels of backing currently required for a season in F1’s feeder category.

For that to happen though, there needs to be a major shift in GP2’s thinking. Bernie will have to loosen his grip and allow some TV revenue to go to the teams. Costs will have to be reduced across the board from the championship organisers and from Dallara. It will require a sea change, and it will be a tough transition. But it has to think seriously about its future for I fear that if costs are not reigned in, if it does not become the professional championship it has always had the potential to be, then its position in single seater racing will come under threat. It will price itself out of a young driver’s consideration, the level of talent will dip and it will no longer be taken seriously. Teams will go off and race elsewhere. The championship will die.

If the purpose of GP2 was to train the future F1 champions, but there are no spaces in F1, then GP2 must stop promoting itself as a “Feeder Series” and start promoting itself as the best racing on earth outside F1, with cars just shy of F1 pace, racing on the same circuits, with a field full of F1 test and reserve drivers, and the very best talent from around the world on the cusp of F1.

A full grid in GP2… but for how long?
c/o GP2 Series Media Service

Until it does however, Formula 1 has some soul searching to do.

By searching for ever younger talent, I fear that potentially superb drivers are being thrust onto the big stage before they are ready, before they have reached the right level to be in Formula 1. They are forced to make their mistakes on the grandest stage of all, and are kicked out for making those very mistakes that every driver must make as he matures, as he evolves… as he learns. You cannot invent experience. You cannot create knowledge from thin air. Only by living, and in this case racing, can anyone amass maturity.

Those mistakes should be made in junior categories. They should be ironed out there, and a driver should be deemed ready when he or she is ready, no matter that they are 25, 26 or 27, no matter how many races they have run. Because it is that very experience that makes them as close to being the complete driver as possible.

Formula 1’s restrictive testing policy means that today, even if a young driver is given a shot, he has next to no time to get himself up to pace.

Jerome d’Ambrosio will race this weekend in Monza. Sure he’s racked up thousands of kilometres on the simulator, but he’s had only a handful of laps in the car for real, at the mid-season test in Mugello. This weekend could make or break his career. One weekend. Four hours of practice. Three qualifying sessions if he’s lucky. One race, the results of which could see him launched into a fulltime drive in 2013, or into the depths of obscurity. It is the challenge every young driver faces, times one hundred. Never mind one season. He has one weekend.

My greatest fear is that Formula 1 has backed itself into a corner. By searching for ever younger talent and disposing of it before it has had time to mature, have we signed away the prospects of an entire generation before it has had a chance to show what it can do? Who will give a chance to anyone in that 23-29 year old age bracket? Who will open their eyes and realise that its all very well finding a talented 19 year old, but that someone who has been racing for a few more years and had the time to iron out his creases and properly prepare himself for Formula 1 is perhaps the better, safer, more complete option?

My guess is nobody. Until it is too late. And we are left asking what happened to an entire generation of incredibly talented racing drivers.

Driving standards and blocking – A Stateside view from James Hinchcliffe

James Hinchcliffe c/o http://www.hinchtown.com

As part of my research into current driving standards and safety in the highest echelons of modern single seater racing, I’ve heard many suggestions of the introduction of a rule similar to that implemented across the Atlantic in Indycar. Indycar has, for a long time, had strict regulations regarding what is and is not permitted as regards the acceptable limitations placed upon the defence of racing position. To many of us, myself included, such rules have always seemed to be somewhat archaic and unfair. Perhaps this is because I have grown up immersed in the very Euro-centric style of racing we associate with Formula 1, GP2 and before it F3000, GP3, Formula 3 etc, where the ability to defend is seen as being as important as the ability to attack.

But given that my recent articles and interest has focussed on driving standards, and in particular the acceptability of blocking, I thought it would be only right to seek the opinions of one of Indycar’s finest.

I first met James Hinchcliffe in his days racing in A1GP, and since that time he has blossomed into not only an excellent racing driver and megastar of the Indy racing world, but a fine man and a wonderful ambassador for our sport. Here, he shares with us his views and opinions on driving standards in Indycar, and provides an insight into how blocking is policed on the other side of the pond. When read in light of last week’s comments from Charlie Whiting on this very blog on the topic of blocking, and also when taken in the context of Conor Daly’s feelings following his crash in Monaco, James’ insight provides a fascinating and thought provoking alternative view of an argument which continues to be discussed.

James Hinchcliffe c/o http://www.hinchtown.com

James, as a star of the Indycar world, could you explain to my readers how the rules on blocking differ in Indycar as opposed to what we see in Europe in GP3, GP2 and F1?

The rule in IndyCar is simple. You are allowed to defend your position as long as your move is pre-emptive. If the move is made in reaction to another driver pulling out to pass, that’s illegal. The other element is that you may only move once. Once you have picked the line you want to take to defend, that is the line that you must enter the corner from. You can’t defend to the left, then swing back out right to make a left-hand corner, for example. This seems to differ from Europe in that I haven’t been able to discern any rules in European racing! It always seems to be a bit of a free-for-all. I have to admit, as someone who races I find it shocking what drivers in Europe sometimes get away with.

What kind of punishment can be expected for breaking the blocking rules?

Blocking usually ends in a drive through penalty for the offender. If it takes place on the last lap, then a time penalty of the amount of time it takes to drive through pit lane at that specific track will be added to the final classifications.

You’ve raced in championships that don’t utilise the blocking rule seen in Indycar. Do you think that racing without a blocking rule is purer? That the ability to defend is just as important as the ability to attack?

IndyCar used to race with a rule that didn’t allow ANY defending. You could not deviate from the racing line at all. This rule is asinine and in my mind ruined the racing in IndyCar for years. This year we have moved to a version of the rule that allows defending, creates racing, but is still safe. The ability to defend is an art and a big part of racing. I don’t really think that this version of the rule is any less ‘pure’ than having no rules at all. The big factor is the reactionary element. When making a pass you are so on the limit, you pick your path and commit to it. When drivers are allowed to react to another car AFTER they have initiated a pass, there is no room for adjustment for the passing car and it leads to accidents. In open wheel, those types of accidents usually end in someone going airborne. I am all for pure racing. But I am also for respectful racing. There are too many drivers that show complete disregard for their competitors and I just don’t see how that makes the racing better.

There is a line of thinking in the European based championships that perhaps youngsters these days feel invincible, because the cars are so safe, the tracks have so much run off, and because there are few drivers coming through the ranks that have experienced a major injury to a colleague… let alone a fatality. Can you see how such a mindset might be formed, or is it simply a case of us reading too much into the aggressive racing style of some youngsters?

That’s a great question. I think that certainly the sport’s safety record has made it easier maybe for some younger drivers to not think about the consequences. But at the end of the day, even in Formula 1 at it’s worst, when drivers were being killed every fortnight, all the other drivers still strapped in and got on with the job. A real racer will race the way they do regardless. It’s in our DNA. When the helmet is on, you don’t think about how safe your car is or how much run off the track has. Maybe the youth of today are simply a more aggressive breed! Something in the water or video games maybe!

Indycar suffered its own tragedy last year. How much has Dan (Wheldon)’s loss brought driving standards to the forefront of your and your rivals’ minds when out on track? Has it made you more wary of giving space? Have Indycar drivers changed the way they race… even if only subconsciously?

Despite all that was written and maybe said in the immediate aftermath of Dan’s accident, driving standards weren’t the problem. The formula was a recipe for disaster. The minute you start thinking of driving ‘safe’, if you will, it can actually be more dangerous because you become unpredictable. As a driver, you expect all the other drivers to behave in a way that is pushing every scenario to the limit and so you know what they are likely to do in a given situation. When they stop doing that and back out of something unexpectedly, it can actually create a bad situation on track. I think there is a good level of driving standards in IndyCar and I certainly haven’t seen guys giving more room than in the past! We are all racers that will fight for every inch of real estate.

A huge thank you to James, who took time out of his busy schedule to respond to my questions.

Charlie Whiting on driving standards and safety – Exclusive

Charlie Whiting © James Moy Photography

Following Conor Daly’s GP3 accident in Monaco, and with driving standards at all levels in the sport an area of relevant and, I feel, huge importance in the modern era, last week I emailed the FIA with a few questions I had on the subject for an article I was going to write for this blog. Rather than answering them there and then, I received a reply that Charlie Whiting would rather discuss the topic openly and freely at the Canadian Grand Prix. Now, Charlie doesn’t give many on the record interviews, so I was absolutely delighted to accept his offer and on Thursday I had the pleasure of an exclusive audience with Formula 1’s Race Director. The following 30 minutes provided a fascinating insight into the current levels of safety and accepted driving standards in the sport.

As I said, I was going to turn the quotes into an article, but frankly I feel they stand better and will prove more informative if I simply print the complete transcript of the interview for you on this blog.

So here it is…

There are questions that exist at present about driving standards and what is considered acceptable driving. I’d like to start, if I can, by looking at the Conor Daly incident in Monaco and the fact that no penalty was awarded to Dmitry Suranovich for what appeared to be a dangerous defence of position.

There was an investigation, and presumably the stewards didn’t think that he had made more than one change of direction to defend his position. This is something that people often don’t quite get. I’ve only looked at it a couple of times and really only for the purposes of seeing what happened to the car not really the driving standards, that’s not really my business as I’m not race director for GP3. My concern was for what happened to the car and how the fences and guardrail worked. But what often happens in these cases if you have a driver who moves once and then he’s allowed to move back towards the racing line as long as he leaves room, one car width. That’s a new rule for this year. I could see a little bit of darting about but I didn’t think personally that constituted making a change of direction to defend a position, whereas we had quite famously Lewis and was it Petrov in Malaysia, where Lewis went from one side of the track to the other and then again in Malaysia and again with Lewis he got a drive through for doing exactly that. But they were significant changes of direction. But again, I’ve only seen that a couple of times.

On that topic, there have been a number of incidents this year, thinking back specifically to races such as Bahrain and Rosberg edging drivers to the track limits and over the track limits. Nico was investigated for that and no punishment was giving and OK, he was within the regulations in that he only made one move, but from the outside looking at that move it could appear to viewers worldwide that he made a dangerous move in that he has pushed someone off track to defend a position. How is that decision made, what is the thought process in determining that such a move is legal?

That’s quite an easy one. What Nico did was make one move. He made it decisively he didn’t hesitate he just made the move and went in one direction. Crucially he moved before the driver behind him. So he started it. In Alonso’s case they probably decided together if you see what I mean. But it was much clearer in the case with Lewis. But at no point, when there was one car width left between Nico’s car and the edge of the track, at that point there was no part of the car behind that was alongside him. That’s what swayed it just in Nico’s favour. Because at that point he’s allowed to use the full width of the track to defend his position, and the rules say that specifically. He’s allowed to use the full width of the track. He didn’t force the driver off track, the other driver drove off the track. Fernando backed off, lost momentum, but Lewis decided he was going to go for it whatever and kept going, and that for me was the only contentious thing: did Lewis gain an advantage by going off the track?

The same thing happened in the GP2 race earlier in the day when Gutierrez was edged off the track, but it was him that was put under investigation for gaining an advantage by exceeding track limits.

I’d have to look at that one again, but I’m very familiar with the two Rosberg incidents. But Nico was marginally OK, and it was very marginal. Since then I have written a note to the teams and have said that if there is any substantial part of the following car alongside, then you can’t use the full width of the track. I’m due to talk to the drivers about that on Friday here in Canada. We need to have a little chat about that.

There’s also the question of race starts and drivers edging each other towards the pit wall or even during the race when they are coming down the start/finish straight, which is often the DRS zone, and we see drivers being edged towards the pit wall. Is that something you are happy with, watching drivers push each other that close?

Not really, no. That’s what happened with Michael and Rubens in Hungary wasn’t it? Again, in that case a part of Rubens’ car was alongside Michael and Michael didn’t leave Rubens the space he should have done and that’s why he was penalised. If you analyse it, with a completely clear head, and don’t look at the video and say ‘Wow that was terrible,’ if you try and analyse it in very precise terms, in fact Michael’s move wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t far off what Nico did. It was just that there was a wall there so it looked a whole lot worse. Nico was right on the edge of acceptability, Michael was over the edge.

Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1, Bahrain 2012 © James Moy Photography

When you have tracks with so much run off, the big Tilke tracks, do you feel drivers maybe feel that they can push each other to the limits more because they’re not pushing their rivals onto grass or into a wall, there are metres of run off. They’re not necessarily taking more risks but perhaps pushing each other further than they would on tracks where there’s more to lose?

Probably. But not consciously, perhaps. It’s the same as the risks they take when they’re driving. They probably do more because they know that the worst that could happen to them is to spin off into a vast expanse of asphalt.

Is that a good thing?

Well, that’s a rather philosophical point.

Does it come down to a question of respect?

Well there are two things we need to think about there. Normally and I think Bahrain is the exception to the rule, the track verges, as in the edges of the track, are grass. The run off areas are the parts straight on around the outside of a corner. I think I’m right in saying that there are no other circuits with asphalt for verges. I’m just trying to think but I’m sure they are all grass. So it would have been a whole different story if Lewis would have kept his foot in and used the grass instead of the asphalt in Bahrain. He would have lost downforce, grip, he would have lost everything on the grass. I don’t think Nico would have done anything different had it been grass, I think it’s the driver behind who would have done something different.

As far as drivers taking more chances shall we say if they’ve got a huge run off area, I think a lot of things wouldn’t happen. There are lots of manoeuvres that drivers probably wouldn’t contemplate if there weren’t the big run off areas. If we go back to Prost and Senna in Suzuka, there’s no way they would have engaged in those things if there’d been a wall at that part of the track. That’s an extreme, of course, but the principle is there in my opinion.

I was speaking to a young driver yesterday, on the record, a GP2 race winner and a current F1 reserve driver, and he told me that while young racers don’t necessarily feel immortal, they know the cars are so safe that they can push each other closer to the edge because the car will save them. Is that the risk that we run? That the cars are so safe now, the tracks are so safe, that these guys are racing with no consideration for their own wellbeing, or even worse, for the wellbeing of their rivals?

It is, I suppose, an unintended consequence of having much safer cars and much safer tracks, but that’s what the stewards are there for. If you think a driver has deliberately forced another driver off track, and we go back again to Nico and Lewis, that was a very close call for the stewards. Did he force him off or not? If he’d got half way alongside and you’d forced the guy over then you’d be nicked, despite how safe the track is or how safe the cars are. I’d like to think drivers didn’t think that. I’m sure they take more risks when it comes to trying to do a quick lap, when they’ve got open expanses of run off area. That’s inevitable. I think laptimes around Monaco would be a bit quicker if there was no guardrail there, you know? But I don’t think that they do anything that they shouldn’t do, and even if they did they’d be nicked. It wouldn’t matter how big the verges or the run off areas are, whether it is grass, asphalt or gravel. If the move is wrong, it is wrong.

Charlie Whiting with FIA President Jean Todt © James Moy Photography

How much responsibility do you and the stewards feel when looking at an incident in Formula 1 and deciding whether or not to apportion blame or a penalty for defending that has been too harsh, that if it is not dealt with sufficiently that it will filter down to junior categories that this is an acceptable way to race. If we go back to those Rosberg incidents, potentially in a young driver’s mind it may have been on the limit but perhaps it’s now OK to push somebody off.

In answer to the first question, yes there has to be some consistency especially in GP2 and GP3 because they are with Formula 1 and everyone sees what goes on. But obviously with Formula 1 being televised worldwide other drivers see it and if they think, and I’ve heard clerks of the course say to me, ‘This bloody driver said to me, well if Michael Schumacher can do that, then so can I.’ It’s going to happen. But the difficulty, really, is trying to explain for example why Nico wasn’t penalised. Because when I first saw it I said, ‘Wow, he can’t do that.’ But when you analyse it, and you realise that well he did move first, he decided to go that way, Lewis decided to go that way but not until after and he never got alongside him and had to drive off the track to get past him… but it didn’t look that way at first. That’s why it takes time to analyse these things properly and to get the right outcome. But to get that across to young F3 drivers in Germany let’s say, who were watching it and are racing in the Euroseries the next weekend and think, ‘Well he got away with it, so it’s acceptable,’ it is very difficult for them to understand why it was found acceptable.

And for the fans as well. Perception is 95% of reality. You’ve got all the cars carrying FIA “Make Roads Safe” logos and yet apparently it’s OK to pull off a move like that and if the fans don’t correctly understand why that move is OK, there’s a mild irony to them carrying that message.

I can see why people would say that. All the stewards can do is look at each incident and judge it on its merits. They have far more available to them than the public can see. This is often the problem. They have on board camera shots that haven’t been shown on a broadcast, we have a race incident system which helps us analyse things from different angles, that you can’t get from normal cameras. With all those tools available to them they can make the right decision. In Rosberg’s case it was the right decision. But it is quite hard to get that across. If someone has got an idea in their head that what Rosberg did was wrong, it’s going to be very hard to shift that in my experience.

The repaired catch fencing at Monaco following Daly’s accident © The Buxton Blog

Moving away from driving standards for a moment then, and back to something you touched on at the very start in relation to Conor Daly’s accident in Monaco and that you were more interested in the fencing and how it did its job. The race was red flagged because the supporting poles were bent back and the fencing was gone. How well do you think the catch fencing did its job, and is the FIA looking at alternative methods of supporting catch fencing because one thing that has come up in conversations I’ve had since Monaco is just how lucky we were and how lucky Conor was in that incident, because of how bent those poles were and we think back to last year and the manner in which Dan Wheldon lost his life… and but for 90 degrees of rotation it could have been an incredibly similar accident.

Of course. Yes, it could have.

The debris fence designs are laid down as to what we recommend as ideal. For example the posts are separated by four metres, they have reinforcing cables and the mesh goes over the top. That is exactly how it is designed in Monaco. They use steel “I” beams, unlike the fences here in Canada which use round supporting poles. There are lots of different ways of doing it. But I think they did an exceptional job in Monaco. They did a really good job. It kept the car from going over the guardrail. It prevented a marshal post being hit. But, as you quite rightly say, imagine the force it would take to bend those “I” beams. If that had been his head it would have been an un-survivable accident. That, unfortunately, is where luck comes in. It’s really hard to guard against that. It’s really hard to build fences that don’t have big solid structures in them. Because big large unsupported areas of mesh, I mean there are things around apparently, such as those they use for skiers and rock falls, avalanche sorts of things to stop rocks falling onto the road, but you still need some sort of support for them.

What we have at the moment is what we consider to be the best option. You will always run the risk of a car and driver hitting the debris fence at just the wrong angle and in Dan’s case, when you look at those fences over there on those ovals, we’re talking tubes a foot wide. They wouldn’t have moved at all. Massive. Twenty reinforcing cables, much higher than our fences. They are fundamentally to stop a car going into the crowd and at those speeds they’re the sort of things you need. But for that cruel twist of fate he would have probably had this horrific looking accident and walked away from the car. I think 14 cars were in that crash.

In Suzuka they have substantial fences there down the pit straight, and it’s a good few years ago now but Ogawa was involved in a crash there, and died after his Formula Nippon car hit a supporting pole.

You will never eradicate injury because of the nature of the sport. But what you can do, you can look at what’s likely to have the best outcome in the majority of cases and a typical example is the height of the noses on F1 cars. We’ve done a lot of research and chucked cars into rotating wheels and we found the optimum height above the ground to stop a car launching is between 150 and 200 millimetres. You go over that you’ll launch, you go under that and you’ll go under tyre barriers.

So, you still run the risk of possibly going under a tyre barrier if you’re bouncing over a gravel trap, and you still possibly run the risk of launching if your ride height is a little bit higher than normal. But that’s the best thing we can find to do, and if we implement that then it is going to attack a large part of it. You’ll never get it all. You’ll never find something that is 100% safe. If you look at the upsides and the downsides you say well, how many accidents have we had where cars have been launched by a nose hitting a wheel? Lots. How many times have we seen a car go under a tyre barrier? One. So which do you want to stop? The one you see the most of. That’s the trade off you have to make sometimes.

Going back to catch fencing, are you looking at alternate methods? I’ve heard talk of Perspex type affairs almost like what they have in ice hockey.

I’ve not seen anything like that. I’ve not heard any discussion. We do have new debris fence material which is really quite good. It was used on the first corner in Malaysia for the first time this year. It is made by a company called Geobrugg AG in Germany, and it is used for avalanche containment. The advantage is you can have a larger spacing between posts so it reduces by half the amount of posts you could potentially hit.

Have you worked with or are you in discussion with the guys in Indycar about what they have learned from Dan Wheldon’s crash?

Oh yes. We have a full report on that.

So one final question, and thank you so much for bearing with me through all of this, we saw a number of loose wheels in Monaco and they all appeared to be very clean breaks.

There were two examples in Formula 1, and Maldonado’s was most bizarre. It actually broke the axle and it snapped the disc in half, so the wheel was there with half the axle and half the disc so the tethers weren’t able to do anything. I don’t believe there’s anything we can do about that to be honest. The other one, which I believe was Perez, was that he hit the guardrail and literally punched the middle of the wheel out. There is very little one can do about that and the only consolation you have is that the amount of energy required to rip that off dissipates a huge amount of the energy of the wheel and you didn’t see the wheel going that far. Conor’s wheel went quite far though.

It did, and it very luckily missed the cars coming through the debris. How are things going at the FIA with your investigations into cockpit safety?

That’s a big project and we’ve tried fighter jet canopies. They work but there are quite a few problems with those. They need to be 30 millimetres thick which presents sufficient optical difficulties. We need to try and get something that you can see through when you’re sat down there and that’s very hard. We tried a roll structure. It’s an ugly thing but it did the job. So next we’re trying to find something that’ll be a deflector. In the end we may have to end up with something that will help a lot but won’t eradicate the likelihood of something hitting a driver. It may not prove to be impossible to completely eradicate that. Even if you put a driver in a closed car, there’s no guarantee a wheel won’t fly through the windscreen for example.

We are doing our best, the guys at the Institute are doing a lot of work on this, but it is not the work of a moment and it is fraught with difficulty.

My thanks to Charlie Whiting for taking time out of his schedule to talk to me, and to Matteo Bonciani at the FIA for organising the interview.

On Bahrain

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

So, I’ve done it. I’ve bitten the metaphorical bullet and booked my flights to Bahrain. I waited as long as I could to see how the situation played out, and following the confirmation yesterday from Bernie, the teams and the Bahrainis that the event would actually be going ahead as planned, I took the plunge and made my booking.

Now there shouldn’t be any real surprise in this, should there? You can see the headline – Random Bloke in Does His Job Shock. But many of us in the media have been questioning whether or not we would or even should be attending the race.

I was one of very few media to be in Bahrain during the original risings in February last year, as I was present in Bahrain for the GP2 Asia race weekend that never took place. Following the events of those few days, I have to admit that the thought of going back had filled me with some dread. It’s not that I dislike Bahrain. I don’t. I have always enjoyed going there and have always enjoyed going to the Bahrain International Circuit. And with the exception of 2010 when the unnecessary circuit changes were made I think the track layout has lent itself, more so for GP2 than F1, to some pretty good racing too.

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The problem that we all face right now is that Formula 1 has been politicised. Whatever the sport had decided to do would have upset somebody. If the FIA had cancelled the race, then it would have sent out the message that the sport was unhappy with the way in which the ruling regime had conducted itself and that would have been seen as a tacit show of support for those rising against the ruling elite. Conversely, by not cancelling the race Formula 1 has, through no fault of its own, thus shown tacit support for the ruling elite.

Sadly, it was always going to be a case of “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

It is an impossible situation to be in, and one in which I do not envy either Bernie Ecclestone or Jean Todt. The ruling regime clearly want the Grand Prix to be a sign that things are back to normal in Bahrain, and to use it as a point of unity for the country. And I truly hope it can prove to be just that. Sport can be a healing tool for unrest, just look at the Olympics and the fact that so many nations caught up in conflicts have competed side by side with one another over the history of the games.

But an international sporting event is also a very good tool for those with an agenda to get their message out to a wide audience.

Ecclestone himself admitted just a few days ago that the Grand Prix in Bahrain could find itself at the centre of such a demonstration, but that such a vulnerability made it no different to any other Grand Prix on earth. If somebody wanted to make a scene, he said, there is little anybody could do to stop them, regardless of where we race.

Of course, Bahrain is not the only country in which we race which suffers from questionable human rights. Bahrain is also not the only country which has experienced violent unrest and death over the last 12 months… London burned last summer amidst violent protests and yet the British Grand Prix is under no threat. Yes, the London rioters were more interested in stealing a new pair of shoes than they were in fighting for democracy, but incredibly, and despite the gaping holes in the comparison, this is an argument which has been raised in support of maintaining the Bahrain Grand Prix and is thus why I bring it up here.

However, it is due to the longevity of the violence, and the continued insistence by protesters that the Grand Prix is part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, that there are still genuine fears that all will not be peaceful.

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations. February 2011

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations - February 2011

Yesterday in London, my Fleet Street colleagues were invited to a media luncheon at the Royal Automobile Club, at which the Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R Alzayani refuted the need for additional security.

“There’s no need,” he said. “You will come out and you will see — it is business as usual. There are some clashes with police, isolated in villages. Some of these clashes are very small — 10 or 15 people — but it gets blown out of proportion and made to sound as if the whole nation is rising up.”

Bernie Ecclestone himself blamed the media for inflaming the situation. “Seriously, the press should just be quiet and deal with the facts rather than make up stories.”

But the facts are, some of us are still scared.

I am still awaiting news on whether my media visa has been accepted. Without it I will not be going. Even with it, there are still fears over the safety of the media at large. Many have been detained in the Gulf state over the past 12 months and even with an F1 media visa there are no guarantees that we will not be looked upon with suspicion.

There is an allocated media hotel and media shuttles have been laid on. I will be avoiding both. It’s just too much of an obvious target for those wishing to get their message across to an international audience.

Maybe I’m getting overly worried. And I hope that I am. I hope we get out there and everything is fine, that Bahrain is the place I remember and that we have a great weekend of racing in which media, teams, drivers and fans are able to compete in and enjoy a race weekend like any other.

I hope that the Grand Prix can unite a divided nation and help to bring happiness to a country which has been put through a year of misery.

And I hope that we are able to leave after the chequered flag with happy memories of our return to Bahrain, not because the voices of the people who have been silenced since February 2011 have once again been suppressed, but because the line we have been handed about the race uniting people is one which genuinely resonates throughout Bahrain and brings people of different faiths and opposing politics together, to celebrate under the banner of sport.

BIC exit - February 2011

BIC exit - February 2011

A win-win situation for F1… incredibly.

Sergio Perez, Sauber - Winter testing, February 2011

It has been a while since I’ve put pen to paper, and for that I can only apologise. A combination of a heavy season, some personal stuff, and a bit too much time talking rubbish on twitter have all contributed to me perhaps not making enough time to write.

There have been a few topics on which I’ve wanted to write recently, but interestingly, as time has passed, they have all seemed to merge into one topic. So maybe it is just as well I waited.

There is a great deal of talk doing the rounds at present about a return of in season testing, and I for one think it’s about time. It’s one of the only decent suggestions FIA President Jean Todt has managed to come up with thus far in an otherwise lacklustre presidency which, this year in particular, has seemed to lack direction, conviction and fortitude. The return of in season testing, however, is to my mind essential on a number of levels. But it needs to be done right.

My suggestion, as I have declared a few times this year on SPEED, is to have a one day test on the Monday after each European Grand Prix. It’s a system used by motoGP and works well in that category. What it would mean for Formula 1 is that the teams would be able to rest easy on Sunday after the race and actually enjoy their celebrations rather than having to pack up the paddock and disappear off to new lands. The cars, the teams, the equipment, the timing infrastructure… everything is in place. The fans are there too.

My tweak however, would be to only allow a team’s reserve driver to do the testing. Here’s why…

Teams no longer have test drivers. Because testing, quite simply, doesn’t exist at the same level that it used to. There was a time when the likes of Alex Wurz, Pedro de la Rosa and Marc Gene were some of the highest regarded drivers in the sport, not so much for their racing acumen, as for their incredible feedback and for the incredible insight they were able to give their teams in the testing and development of a Formula 1 car. F1 2011 has no need for such men. And it’s a huge loss.

Lucas di Grassi tests for Renault, 2005

I’ll give you an example: Lucas di Grassi. A driver of staggering talent, and an incredible development driver. He was the favoured son of Renault and his skills are so well regarded that he has recently been hired full-time by Pirelli to act as their tyre tester and developer. If this was the same Formula 1 of a decade ago, I have no doubts that Lucas would be held in that same bracket as the Wurz’s, Gene’s and de la Rosa’s. The go to man if you wanted a quick car.

But it’s about more than that. Teams no longer have the need for test drivers so instead they have a reserve driver. But are reserve drivers actually reserve drivers at all? Sauber, for example, have promising young Mexican GP3 champion and GP2 race winner Esteban Gutierrez on their books as their reserve driver. But when Sergio Perez felt he could not take part in the Canadian Grand Prix following his huge Monaco shunt, Sauber’s reserve driver was not used. Despite there being a question mark over Perez going into the Montreal weekend, Sauber hadn’t even brought Gutierrez to the race. Instead of using their reserve driver, then, Sauber was forced to ask McLaren, minutes before second practice, if they could borrow Pedro de la Rosa for the weekend.

Another example is Renault, the F1 team with perhaps more reserve drivers than any other in the sport. But when their lead driver Robert Kubica was dreadfully injured pre-season, which of their 176 reserve drivers was called up to replace him? Senna? Grosjean? Well, both of them have F1 experience. And yet neither got the shout. Instead the role fell to Nick Heidfeld.

So what’s the point? What is the point in having a reserve driver if you’re not going to use him? It’s like Fabio Capello making up his England national football team and keeping a few promising youngsters on the bench, and when he needs to make a substitution making the shock decision to give Geoff Hurst a call.

I mean this not as a slight on Pedro or Nick who are immense talents… but surely we have got to look to the future of this sport, have we not?

It seems to me that only Force India, Toro Rosso and Lotus have got this reserve driver thing figured out. By giving their reserve driver time in their cars on Fridays at races, they are not only able to observe and analyse that driver’s potential as a future racer, but they are able to give that driver the experience of the car that he will need should the unfortunate happen and one of the main drivers need replacing. The teams are also getting a fresh opinion on car set-up and direction. Naturally they’ll want to go in the direction that best serves their race drivers, but the more information from the more sources that they can get, the better their chance of moving up the field.

Ricciardo has been given time to develop and impress.

Toro Rosso, this season, has been a prime example of using a reserve driver. That Daniel Ricciardo is talented has never been in question. He is clearly a big favourite with the Red Bull bosses too. He has shone in Friday outings, and there had been talk all season of him getting a call up to race in 2011.But with both Buemi and Alguersuari putting in great performances of late, there was no way that STR could replace one of them without causing a stink. The obvious thing for Red Bull to do was to put him in at HRT, alongside Tonio Liuzzi who Red Bull know well from his days at STR when the Italian raced alongside, amongst others, the current world champion Sebastian Vettel. The German and Liuzzi were fairly closely matched, with Vettel just edging the Italian. If Ricciardo can get even close to Liuzzi, it’s a good sign.

Ricciardo’s first race meeting as an F1 race driver was Silverstone and he in no way disgraced himself. But ask yourself… would he have been able to get as close to Liuzzi had he not had the recent, relevant experience of driving an F1 car every race weekend for STR? I doubt it very much.

There are a wealth of good drivers out there who are all vying for their shot at F1. But with testing so limited, how many will get their shot? How many more seasons will we see the likes of the Trullis, Heidfelds, de la Rosas getting back into F1 cars, when the future stars of this sport are left sitting on a pitwall, or even worse left sitting at home, because they “lack the necessary experience.” Experience, which could be gained if they were simply allowed to test.

Signing a young driver as your reserve, and then not using him because he lacks experience makes a mockery of the very appointment. If you’re not going to use him as reserve, sign him as your “youth” driver, or whatever you want to call it.

But it isn’t the teams’ fault. They have been forced into this position by the limit on testing. Do you honestly think Red Bull would have given Ricciardo time in Vettel or Webber’s seat during Friday practice? Would Ferrari have allowed Jules Bianchi to step into one of the scarlet machines in place of Alonso of Massa, or would Ross Brawn have given Sam Bird the nod over Michael Schumacher or Nico Rosberg at Mercedes for practice 1?

GP2 racer Sam Bird is highly regarded at MercedesGP

Because of this, we need a rethink. We need to do something that will allow the young drivers to build their experience should they ever need to step into the breach, whilst at the same time allowing these youngsters the opportunity to show their worth to the teams in order to keep the evolution of this sport’s talent pool fluid. We need a reserve driver test day after every European weekend.

The other bonus about running this system is that the majority of F1 teams employ reserve or junior drivers who compete in the GP2 Series. GP2 races take part… yep, on European F1 weekends. So everyone’s in the right place. It is just such a simple concept.

It would, of course, mean that back to back races would have to become a thing of the past, in Europe at least, but when you have a frankly bonkers situation such as we had this year when you run Barcelona before Monaco, and Monaco starts a day earlier than most races, I think seeing the back of back to backs in Europe probably wouldn’t be that much of a bad thing.

The recent off throttle exhaust blown diffuser confusion is another fine example of why a bit of testing might be a good idea. With a mid-season shift in regulation, everybody went into first practice at Silverstone running blind, on a new track configuration, and in the wet. Nothing meaningful was learned. By the afternoon the goalposts had been moved in time for practice two, but again nothing was learned. So we wasted a day, and everyone went into Saturday once again running blind.

Imagine if we’d had a one day test post Valencia, either on the street track or at Ricardo Tormo up the road. A full day of testing, with the FIA in attendance, might have seen these issues ironed out earlier. It might have avoided the frankly ridiculous situation we were faced with, and are now faced with, where we’re returning to what we had before.

There’s also a safety issue. While today’s cars are incredibly safe, it hasn’t been too long since Felipe Massa’s monstrous accident at the Hungaroring which he had, incredibly, touched upon in the days leading up to that weekend when, in an interview I had carried out with him for GPWeek magazine, he’d said he was worried that a lack of in-season testing was causing people to run new parts on cars under the pressure of a race weekend and that at some point in the not too distant future something was going to break and someone was going to get hurt.

Bringing back testing makes sense from all angles. It allows development within a season, and increases safety potential. If run, as I think would be the most preferable option, on a Monday after a race, it would be neither a financial nor a logistical burden for the teams. And, if run with young reserve drivers, it would ensure that the future generation of F1 stars are brought up to speed, given the experience and given the chance to shine, rather than being constantly overlooked for their lack of experience.

Everyone wins. For once.

Lewis Hamilton and the news you’ve been waiting for…

Is the fro coming back?

You may remember last year I asked Lewis if there was any chance we’d see him regrow his GP2 generation afro, to which he replied there wasn’t. I wanted to start a “regrow the fro” campaign, but alas, there seemed little point.

Well, the man who currently sports what I term the “Taaj Beard” (as it looks somewhat reminiscent of the facial hair sported by the Matt Lucas comedy character Taaj Manzoor in the show “Come Fly With Me” – see images below), has apparently admitted that anything is possible with regard to his Formula 1 future… even referencing a return of the fro!

In an interview with El Mundo’s Jaime Rodriguez, Lewis, when asked if he’d ever leave McLaren, is reported to have said: “I can’t imagine it but anything’s possible, like one day I’ll let my hair grow into an afro.”

The regrow the fro campaign is gathering pace. Keep the faith people. Keep the faith.

Lewis

Taaj

Even more on the Mercedes wheel rims – update: LEGAL.

Faster than ever? Will Merc roll out new wheel rims in Malaysia pitstops?

Morning all.

I’ve just got into the track here in Malaysia, and the issue of those Mercedes wheel rims is something that is starting to get a bit of attention.

Yesterday we touched on the 2011 Formula 1 technical regulations and whether the use of an attached wheel nut on a wheel rim would be legal or not. The general feeling is that the regulations referred to yesterday were written primarily with the intention of removing wheel “spinners” from the sport.

However what it appears Mercedes have produced would, I and others believe, be within regulation. I am also aware, however, that it is something the FIA has its eye on.

Now we just need to keep a beady eye on those Merc pitstops to see if the system’s getting a roll out this weekend.

UPDATE: I have just had confirmation from the FIA that the system shown in the photo I displayed yesterday of the MercedesGP wheel rim with wheel nut apparently attached IS legal. Well done Mercedes, now lets see if they use it, how fast it is, and how long it takes the other teams to cotton on.